Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Fallacy of Novelty

One day we were cleaning the biology store room and found a big bucket covered with trefoil radiation warning stickers. Back in the day, it was not uncommon to use radioactive materials in chemistry classes. I even remember using a Geiger counter in my own high school chemistry class. Nowadays there is really no need to possess actual radioactive materials at school, as it is just too dangerous and all relevant content standards can be taught through simulations, reading and lecture.  

I alerted my department head about the radioactive bucket, who alerted the assistant principal, who completely disregarded it. The next morning, the principal passed by the science wing and remarked, “My, you all have a healthy glow today!”

We convened a departmental meeting. Should we go to OSHA? The school board? Alert parents? What was actually in the bucket? We had no radiation safety equipment to don for an investigation. Even if it was harmless, it would still need to be disposed and not by simply chucking it in the garbage. In the end, I believe the district brought in a haz. mat. specialist to remove the item.

One science teacher, who had been around for 30 years, told us how common it was in the old days to let kids handle radioactive materials. Then he brought out a horrifying ancient device called The Radium Ore Revigator, a pseudoscientific piece of quackery from the 1920s that was supposed to prevent arthritis, rheumatism and flatulence. Water flowed over radium in the device, one of the most radioactive substances known to science, and was then drunk for its salubrious properties.

Back around the turn of the century doctors touted radiation as a panacea for many ills. In 1903, Alexander Gram Bell proposed using radium to treat tumors. This later became a common practice. Henrietta Lacks, whose prolific cervical cancer gave rise to the ubiquitous and famous HeLa cell line, was initially treated with radium blocks inserted into her uterus, causing terrible burns and internal injury. (See The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, a wonderful biography that not only makes the science very understandable, but also clearly lays out the complex ethical issues around the patenting of human tissues and the history of racism by the medical establishment).

A common fallacy is the Appeal to Novelty: if something is new, then it necessary must be better than its predecessor. Early excitement over radiation’s medical benefits certainly fell into this category, even if scientists have since learned how to use it effectively for certain medical procedures. In our society, novelty is equated with progress. In science, new data often helps provide a better explanation for phenomena, better treatments, and more sophisticated machines, but not always (e.g., thalidomide, DES, Vioxx, Fen-Phen). Manufacturers love to put the word “new” in front of an old product name, perhaps change the labeling and modify the formulation slightly, because we are so quick to accept that newer is necessarily better.

Teachers are no better than others at seeing through this bunkum. In fact, we may even be more susceptible. Consider that most teachers truly want to do a better job, inspire and reach more of their students, help more of them to graduate and become successful in life. Also, consider that we have so many students slipping through the cracks, dropping out, reading below grade level. We are hungry for tools that mitigate these problems and that give us a leg up in our desire to help kids. Enter the snake oil peddlers. Some are CEOs, pundits, politicians who claim business models work for them, so they should work in schools, too. Others are academicians, with scholarly literature to back their claims.

In my fourteen years of teaching I’ve been compelled to try dozens of the “newest,” “best,” and “evidence-based” remedies: Smaller Learning Communities, Differentiated Instruction, Service Learning, Project-Based Learning, Complex Instruction, Constructivism, Professional Learning Communities, ad nauseum. Most of these have their merits, theoretically, but they also require a phenomenal amount of training, planning, preparation and resources. There is no compelling data that any of these techniques can erase the achievement gap or solve the problems of underperforming schools (although some, like Smaller Learning Communities, attract more high achieving students, thus changing the demographics and, subsequently, test scores).

Many argue that they’re still worth doing because they are pedagogically sound and will certainly benefit some students. Perhaps this is true, especially if funding was sufficient. As educators, whenever presented with a new technique, structure or system, we must carefully analyze the costs, and not just accept that the benefits will be worth the trouble. Ultimately, though, we have to address the 500 pound gorilla in the room, class, an issue that cannot be remedied through new and improved curriculum, school restructuring, privatization or union busting.

Educators are not sharks. We will not die if we stop moving forward (nor will our students).

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